Upstart freshman making noise for U

By By Cody Brunner and

By Cody Brunner

Every day freshman linebacker Stevenson Sylvester lines up to play football at the U is a good day.

At least, that’s the feeling you get when talking to the 18-year-old Las Vegas native.

“I love everything about the University of Utah and everything about this team. This is the environment and the place that I want to be,” Sylvester said after practice Tuesday.

Attitude isn’t the only thing the freshman has going for him, either.

Sylvester made quite a name for himself with coaches during summer workouts and spring training with his hard work and love for the game.

With the team now riddled with injuries, those initial impressions, coupled with intense athletic ability, are turning into serious playing time for Sylvester.

“We saw the talent immediately. It was very apparent the first day that he would be able to help this team,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said.

That talent has led Sylvester to two starts, 11 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and an interception that he returned 45 yards for a touchdown.

The interception carried additional meaning, as it was against Utah State, which received a commitment from Sylvester’s cousin, Geno, last spring.

“That was pretty great. We’ve been talking crap to each other ever since we signed the papers to go to college,” Sylvester said. “That rivalry has always been pretty bad so I knew I had to give it my best and take it to him.”

That rivalry is one of many things that has fueled Sylvester into being a big-time contributor for the Utes thus far this season.

“Stevenson is willing to do whatever it takes for his team to be successful. Whether starting or not, he’s just happy to contribute,” linebacker coach Kalani Sitake said. “He does a lot of things that other linebackers can’t do athletically, and that kind of makes up for his size and age.”

The size that Sitake is referring to is the freshman’s 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, which is relatively small for a collegiate linebacker.

To fix that, Sylvester has been on an inverted Jenny Craig plan of sorts.

“We’re waking him up early in the morning and basically force-feeding him to get him to gain weight. Right now, he’s going against guys that are 100-120 pounds heavier than him,” Sitake said.

With Joe Jianonni coming back into the picture this week, every pound will come into play as Sylvester works to maintain his starting position over the junior.

Jianonni sat out the last two games recovering from a foot injury, but returns to the lineup this week. Before the injury, Jianonni was the starting middle linebacker and will look to regain his starting position.

“It’s a battle. It’s hard work and hard competition every day. We both want to play and both love this sport so much. We’d do anything to play,” Sylvester said.

For all of the tremendous upside in Sylvester’s game, his coaches believe there is still much the freshman has to work on.

“He’s coming along well. He’s got ability and fire and that’s a good place to start, but he’s still a long way away from being a true Division-1 linebacker,” Whittingham said, “He’s got to put some meat on his frame, but the athleticism is definitely there.”